Monday, January 26, 2015

Crosby's debt to NHL paid in full

Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015, 10:42 p.m.
(Photo: David Manning, USA TODAY Sports)
Sidney Crosby's first decade in the NHL is almost over. And here is what he needs to know: Being Sidney Crosby isn't his job anymore.
Just being Sidney is all any of us should ask of “The Next One” who became “The One.”
Being Sidney Crosby meant breathing life into hockey after the NHL attempted to suffocate the game at its highest level. Being Sidney Crosby meant resuscitating a Penguins franchise that was on life support while calling a decaying Igloo home.
As Crosby became the world's finest player, Being Sidney Crosby came to mean raising the NHL and Penguins from their respective deathbeds. Either feat should have exhausted Crosby. Both tasks were too much to ask of any “Kid.”
Now a man at 27, Crosby can take the deep breath he is long overdue. His Penguins are perennial contenders. More importantly, they're financially sound, with 360 consecutive home sellouts and supreme regional TV ratings. His league is thriving, topping $4 billion in revenue, and working peacefully with its players' union to finally bring promise of tangible growth.
Being Sidney Crosby wasn't necessary here this weekend. Crosby missed the All-Star festivities because of an injury, and the good people of Columbus, Ohio, hardly seemed to notice. There were a few fans donning Crosby jerseys among the thousands who turned Nationwide Boulevard into an outdoor hockey carnival over the weekend. There also were a lot of people supporting Chicago's Jonathan Toews, Philadelphia's Claude Giroux and Montreal's Carey Price.
None of those players is on Crosby's level outside of hockey. Within it, however, those three players are stars in their own regard.
That's important. That's crucial, actually.
For too long, the NHL was all about Crosby and the player destined to become his historical rival, Washington's Alex Ovechkin. Coming back from the 2004-05 lockout, the league quickly became the Sid and Ovi Show.
It was awesome: Bird versus Magic on a smaller scale.
No matter where they finish among the all-time scorers, Crosby and Ovechkin each deserve the everlasting gratitude of all hockey fans for being willing to carry the flag for the NHL when nobody else could.
They were the best and most marketable players at a time when hockey needed superstars. Their duels for individual awards and team success became the narrative upon which the NHL constructed a story of recovery from a nearly disastrous lost season.
However, Crosby always faced more pressure than Ovechkin. He faced it for the Penguins, who needed a new arena to avoid ruin or extinction. He faced it for the NHL, which needed a North American to sell to North American sports consumers.
Crosby closed that sale by scoring the two most important goals of the past 30 years, markers that made the NHL a big deal again.
His shootout winner at the first Winter Classic provided a snow-globe moment that transformed a one-off gimmick into an NHL staple. On Saturday, the NHL announced three outdoor games for 2016, bringing the total since the first Classic to 16.
A World Cup also is coming in 2016. A Ryder Cup-like competition will happen in 2018. Each of those are slated to happen every four years, possibly driving the NHL out of the Olympics — ironic, considering neither event would be possible without Crosby's iconic Golden Goal at the 2010 Winter Games.
The NHL returned from those Games with Crosby established as a legend in his own time and an understanding that international competitions generated giant TV audiences.
Know what else draws a big number on TV? Being Sidney Crosby. That's why Root Sports Pittsburgh dominates regional hockey ratings. That's why the Penguins play so often on national TV.
Even if commissioner Gary Bettman always resisted committing to Crosby being the face of hockey, instead insisting Crosby was “one of our biggest stars,” it was always true that the NHL benefited as much from Crosby as did the Penguins.
It's also always been true that Crosby had to serve two masters: his franchise, and its league. Crosby needs to serve himself. He's certainly given enough of himself to fulfill a handful of careers.
There is a risk to all parties in Crosby continuing to be “The Man.” For the Penguins, it is relying on his (slightly) diminishing skill to elevate lesser players instead of reloading around him. For the NHL, it is not developing a torchbearer to serve as the guiding light of the next generation.
There is a danger for Crosby, too.
“Sometimes when you have attention, you can be lost,” Ovechkin said. “You just want to not think about the game. You want to think about doing some different stuff.
“Me and Sidney, and all the guys who had that attention (and) been in this position, think, ‘What do I have to say, what do I have to do off the ice?' ”
The answer is not as much as before. Crosby and Ovechkin have already done their part. They were the vitamins C and A for league that needed nourishment.
The NHL is now strong. So are the Penguins.
Sidney, in your next decade, just be you.
Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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